Opinion: Moving Goalposts: Monetizing Next-Gen

For the last 15 years video-games have remained at a mostly static $60. However In that time the cost of big AAA titles has increased dramatically. For example, the upcoming Cyberpunk 2077 is rumored to cost a cool $125 million - and that isn’t taking into account the costs of marketing! With the average cost of a Call of Duty game ranging anywhere from 50 to 200 million to make, it's not exactly chump change. Even though, on paper, the price has only just increased, the actual cost to the consumer has been high for quite some time.

The topic of monetization is a touchy subject in the gaming industry. It’s not like the business practices employed by some of our biggest publishers in the AAA gaming space is shocking news at this point, simply an expected byproduct of the services they provide.

With the recent price increase for next-gen games and the steadier rise in revenue streams for these games, there is a lot to consider for the consumer. In a year that will be forever earmarked as one of the most economically devastating in history, our wallets are more precious than ever and making smarter choices, even as it relates to a pastime, is more important than ever.

The Once and Future Price of Gaming

Nowadays we have multiple versions of the same game. There are digital editions, digital deluxe editions, silver & gold, ultimate, and of course collectors editions. All growing tiers and classes of product with increasing value. What was once just a game is now, more often than not, referred to as the “standard edition”. The base game without any extra bells and whistles.

Suddenly that $60 price tag is worth a whole lot less when you can get early access to a title 3 days before the “official” release date. Or the promise of XP boosters, characters, and cosmetics to make your version of the game standout from other players. This is not to say there is no place for premium editions. As a gamer I’ve dunked my fair share on a collectors edition or two, however the increased need for deciphering spreadsheets when making a purchasing decision is cause for concern.

All these extra add-ons and offers, all in a bid to garner as much attention as possible. We’ve seen this behavior in countless other markets for years. However the reasons we’ve been told, in regards to the gaming industry, have all been linked back to development costs. As the technology has improved, the cost and risks associated has increased, so from a business standpoint increasing the value of the product while still adhering to the rigidity of $60 as a base, becomes a tightrope walk of maximum value vs player expectation.

Tricks of the Trade

However the perceived value becomes skewed when it comes to monetization. Over the course of this generation microtransactions have seen no end of controversy within the gaming industry. With a persistent rise in their usage - from yearly sports titles like Madden and Fifa to blockbusters like Assassins Creed and Call of Duty. Microtransactions have become such a widespread issue that it has even dragged in whole governments to intervene, in a bid to curb some of the more egregious actions taken by companies who won’t regulate themselves proportionately.

Despite these rising concerns, and the government action being taken to resolve these issues, microtransactions continue to earn companies large amounts of revenue. With Activision/Blizzard alone earning $1.2 Billion in the first quarter of 2020. Suggesting that these ‘optional’ transactions won’t simply go away despite the strides made to impose better regulations. We’ve already seen how vehemently companies will defend their practices but what is less obvious is how insidiously some have tried to pull the proverbial wool over people’s eyes.

The Hyper-normalization of Monetization

This has become most apparent in the previously mentioned sports game scene. Both UFC 4 and NBA 2K21 for example, recently went down the route of un-skippable in-game adverts. In 2K’s case, these are 30 second un-skippable adverts for anything ranging from Amazon Prime shows to VR headsets, in a full priced game. Couple these adverts with the already egregious microtransactions that treat player retention like a high-school social hierarchy and those who choose not to payout for their brand of ‘VC’ currency - particularly where it pertains to the children for which many of these games are rated safe for - are made to feel ostracized for being a 'default'. Someone who 'only' has access to the base game offerings.

Again, no bells and whistles.

Above: Exhibit A

On paper, 2K can hide behind excusable remarks like ‘these are optional’ or ‘we did not intend this’ when their communities highlight these issues but it never really solves the problem. Sure, they’ll apply a patch that addresses the specific complaint levied at the game but all this does is dance around the issue at large. It allows them to essentially move the goalposts slightly further away and look like they are ‘listening’ to their community while instead re-tooling or re-formatting their systems to be implemented again in next year's installment.

To mitigate the potential outcry from critics, we have seen examples of review copies of these titles hiding the marketplace outright - usually having any items worth real-world money locked until ‘the general public’ launch. Or even outright patched in post-launch - in an attempt to boost their earnings after the initial surge in sales. This side stepping of scrutiny is a tactic that is becoming more prevalent, actively preventing consumers from making a properly informed decision.

Pointing Fingers - Who’s to Blame?

Up until now, a lot of fingers have been pointed, shots fired if you will. By no means am I trying to incite hatred or suggesting that the blame solely falls on the examples given. As a passionate gamer I’ve read, watched and listened to countless discussions and discourse surrounding these topics and despite feeling on the edge of some kind of ‘movement’ realize we are no closer to solving these problems in our industry.

The aforementioned price increase is only a small step in the right direction. A marginal price increase to the base game simply isn’t enough to cover development costs. Nor will that money go directly into the pockets of the people who work to create these expansive games we come to love. The millions of dollars poured into a single title, the years of hard work that developers put into these projects so passionately, is not justified when many of these workers suffer burnout and depression, from the sheer stress of video game crunch.

No one wants to spend anymore than they have to, yet the industry as a whole is more afraid of scaring potential customers away than trusting in their product enough to match the price accordingly. Or scaling back the bloated costs associated with development because, on paper, the breakneck pace of the industry is healthier than ever.

The Hand That Plays

Next Gen gaming is here and with it come the lessons learned from previous generations. Yet while the technology associated with better hardware has improved over what came before, the economics by comparison are woefully in need of an update. The world is a much smaller, faster paced place than ever before and at its current clip, is unsustainable.

When it comes to video-games, how we choose to engage with communities, the discourse that can take place over social media with developers directly is important. We all have the ability to promote positive change in our industry, to give back a little of the joy and satisfaction these games have brought us so much of. It doesn’t mean you have to boycott every major title under the sun, nor does it mean going to the picket line and striking out against ‘the man’.

The smallest changes often last the longest and can be the most meaningful. Take a moment to consider the broader strokes when eyeing up the next big release on your radar. If something feels wrong, use the platforms available to you to discuss it in a compassionate way. The internet is a two-way street and you might just find someone on the other side is listening.

Image of Watch Dogs Legion editions found here

Image of VtM: Bloodlines 2 editions found here

Image of Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla editions found here

Image of Middle Earth: Shadow of War editions found here

Image of Mortal Kombat 11 editions found here

Final image credited to Lalesh Aldarwish found here

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